Seeing Things |
TOBI TOBIAS on dance et al...
Sunday, March 20, 2005
Sunday, March 13, 2005
Matthew Bourne: Play Without Words / BAM Harvey Theater, NYC / March 15 Ė April 3, 2005
Matthew Bourne, who has relentlessly been creating new takes on golden holies (Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Cinderella, andóthe one that made it to BroadwayóSwan Lake), insists in interviews that his work, if itís dance at all, is for people who donít like dancing. Yet a number of well-known dance critics, both American and British, have been dancing around it, clapping their hands, and Bourne has won enough awards to require a dedicated trophy room. Now his Play Without Wordsówhich copped an Olivier in 2002, when it was created for the Britsí National Theatreóhas come to town. I like dancing; should I have stayed home?
No one in his right mind would praise Bourne for choreography per se. The weakest element of Swan Lake, it is virtually absent from Play Without Words, which deals mostly in highly stylized mime pumped up with show biz moves, the mix paying little heed to musical structuring. Ostensibly Bourneís appeal lies in his vivid theatricality and his transgressive bravado. (That flock of gorgeous, vicious boy swans in Swan Lake is typical.) Iím not entirely convinced, or entertained, by either.
Play Without Words takes off from Joseph Loseyís memorable 1963 film The Servant. The ominous screenplay by Harold Pinter tellsóin words and even more provocative silencesóthe black tale of a privileged fellow who hires a ďmanĒ (a combination butler-housekeeper-valet) who, playing upon varieties of erotic desire laced with class struggle, proceeds to undo his master. Each of these chaps has a woman in his baggage. Our deplorable/unfortunate hero comes equipped with a fiancťe, though neither member of that cold couple has the wits to acknowledge that the gentleman is, at the very least, bisexual. The servant, having made himself indispensable in the household, introduces his ďsisterĒ as a maid. The irresistibly provocative miss is, of course, the servantís bedmate; her real job, to consolidate working-class power by seducing the boss, which she does, ironically, with genuine pleasure.
Bourne captures none of the filmís Turn of the Screw atmosphere, its all but palpable air of half-concealed desire, corruption, and menace. His equivalents of the four main characters are tepid, sometimes two-dimensional to the point of caricature. He himself may have found his efforts insufficient, since he casts three dancers, often performing simultaneously, in each role. This persona-in-triplicate scheme makes for a crowded stage and some confusion, though it reveals Bourneís ability to direct traffic in ways that are visually effective. He has also added a fifth persona, a hefty blue-collar guy who clearly can have any woman he wants, and does. (This character, Bourneís publicist explained to me, is a composite derived from other movies of the period.)
The Losey filmís pervasive and haunting motif of the charactersí spying on one another translates largely as simplistic farce in Play Without Words. Still, a couple of Bourneís scenes are clever and genuinely amusing, in particular a double duet of the master being undressedófor a bath, of course, what were you thinking?óand dressed by his man. One passageóin which man and master all but destroy each other, then reconcileóachieves some authentic human depth, making you understand that theyíre the most symbiotic lovers in the piece. Yet for the most part, though Bourne is touted as being a dynamic storyteller, Play Without Words fails to convey its charactersí motivations and feelings. It doesnít even deliver a clear plotline. No wonder the show often grows tedious. Yes, even the change-partners-and-dance sexual exploits involving the kitchen table.
The production boasts a pleasant jazz score by Terry Davies and a Red Grooms-ish set by Lez Brotherston who also provided the early sixties costumes, including stiletto heels that, astonishingly, donít for a moment faze the handsome ladies in the show.
Iím left wondering if Play Without Words isnít simply a sign of our times, in which the creative powers-that-be assume their audience needs to be lured by shock tacticsóthe raucous, the garish, the forbidden, extremes of novelty for noveltyís sake. Surely the insistent use of these means, which quashes the virtues of sincerity and subtlety, is self-defeating. Most of todayís audience is already beyond shock and, whatís more, benumbed by the ever-escalating onslaught.
Photo: Richard Termine: Sam Archer and Steve Kirkham as master and man in Matthew Bourneís Play Without Words
© 2005 Tobi Tobias
Monday, March 7, 2005
GARBO GETS DRESSED
Glamour: Fashion, Film, Fantasy / The Museum at FIT, NYC / February 15 - April 16, 2005
Camille; directed by George Cukor; starring Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, and Lionel Barrymore; gowns by Adrian; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936
Any theory that may lie behind Glamour: Fashion, Film, Fantasy, the current FIT exhibition curated by Valerie Steele and Fred Dennis, pales in face of its simple, captivating reality. Itís essentially a huge room peopled by row upon row of mannequins wearing gowns that, like the movies and the stars theyíre associated with, provide a blessed antidote to reality. To make sense of this uninflected panorama of extravagant gorgeousness, you instinctively seek out a few objects (as the pros call them, though the word is a pitiful choice) that were meant for youónot for your body, but for your imagination. And then, inevitably, you zero in on the single one that speaks to you most particularly. Orówho knows, the art of costume employs so much witcheryóperhaps it chooses you.
The item with which I bonded was a gown by Adrian, created for Greta Garbo to wear in George Cukorís Camille. Executed in black velour, it has a reticent cutóa demure sweetheart neckline, a snugly fitting bodice. From the trim waistline, a generous skirt falls with cushioned weight, extending slightly at the back as if to hint (only hint, mind you) at a train. A spray of black tulle capping the shoulders suggests a pair of wings, the gownís sole concession to the frivolity of lightness. A modest ďbroochĒ formed from bits of crystal and metal, is anchored dead center on the bosom, like a family heirloom dutifully displayed. But, shooting out a few slender bronze rays, letting fall a sprinkling of minute sparkles that might be stars, it introduces the idea of a celestial universe. This theme expandsóexplodes, actuallyóon the skirt, which looks as if a lavish and reckless hand had flung a galaxy across it. The glittering, gleaming incrustation contains clusters of crystals in myriad shapesósquares, rectangles, elongated diamonds, teardrops, five-pointed starsóand graduated sizes. Raised squares and domed circles are emphasized by marcasite-style frames, while flocks of small and even smaller pewter gray sequins create the illusion of stardust. This evocation of a galaxy recalls the work of Schiaparelliís ďZodiacĒ collection (with its extravagant beading by the House of Lesage), but where Schiaparelliís fantasy glories in its ostentation, Adrianís treatment is more innocent, like something out of a childís dream.
The gown is quietly and extraordinarily beautiful. It also turns out not to have been used in the film. After much inquiry around town, initiated by a puzzled query on my part, it has been relabeled to indicate that itís simply one of several variations proposed for the occasion. But I didnít know that when I fell in love with it, and afterwards, as in most such affairs, there was no going back.
From the sheer pleasure of gazing at this object, I went compulsively further, as writers will. What could be more fitting for a dance fanatic, after all, than to screen the film for which the gown was designed, to see it in motion?
The wardrobe Adrian created for Garbo in Camille demonstrates the fantasy side of a designer equally renowned for the subtle, witty tailoring of ostensibly Plain Jane tweed suits. It is ravishing piece by piece. Whatís more astonishing, though, is the use of the costumes, in sequence, as a metaphor for sublime beauty hauntedóand finally extinguishedóby death. (Should anyone in the Western world still be unaware of the fact, let me say that the heroine of Camille succumbs to TBóa scourge that art has somehow associated with high romance.)
Marguerite Gautieróthe lady of the camellias, as Alexandre Dumas calls her in the novel that spawned not just this film but Verdiís La Traviata and minor but poignant ballets by Ashton and Tudoróhabitually arrays herself in the white of her signature flower. She may be a kept woman, weíre given to understand, but once she encounters Armand Duval she experiences genuine, selfless love, and the white comes to stand for the purity and innocence of romance free from corruption.
After their initial encounter, Marguerite invites Armand to her birthday celebration, to which, as we see first in close-up, she wears a gown thatís an enormous froth of white tulle, like beaten egg whites. Itís offset only by a single but striking ornamentóa huge black bow pinned between her breasts like a ďscarletĒ letter, signifying death. Moments later, when sheís captured in a long shot, standing and then dancing, we see that both bodice and skirt are sparsely strewn with large glittery paillettes in the form of stars, an indication that the heavens are her inevitable realm. The gownís drooping gauzy sleeves, dance aficionados will enjoy noting, might belong to the ethereal costume of a Romantic-era ballerina.
Further on in the film, another white gownófar less diaphanous than the first, as if the air had been sucked out of itóbears two smaller black bows, one under the other, like a sign with a definite yet still undecipherable meaning. Thin lines of black edge the shoulders, the dťcolletage, and the giggly puffed sleeves as well, like a warningóindeed, an omen.
Margueriteís health deteriorates. She and Armand retreat to the country where they deceive themselves into thinking she will be cured by a life of idyllic simplicity and calm in the fresh air. In the horse-drawn carriage taking them to their rural destination, sheís swathed in a black coat and hat that refuse to reflect a single ray of light. Only a white scarf at her neck recalls a happier time. Black has become the dominant hue enveloping her, white reduced to a minor presence.
At the cottage, shortly before the arrival of Armandís father, who will persuade Marguerite to sacrifice her love to her loverís future, she wears a modestly long-sleeved, full-skirted white dress. As if to reinforce the image of decorum, the camera keeps steadfastly away from her throat, the locus, in other scenesówhen Garbo flings back her head in abandonóof nudity abandoning itself to erotic pleasure. The chaste outfit in which Marguerite receives her loverís parentóand submits to his request, which means ultimate self-sacrificeóis slashed by a black waistband anchored by a tight bow at the center, its long inky streamers streaking down the ballooning skirt with the assured ruthlessness of the incision made by a scalpel in the hand of an autopsy surgeon.
Attending the wedding of Armandís luminously virginal sister, Marguerite extinguishes the white of her dress with a black bonnet and stole, to which she subsequently adds a black pelisse that might as well be a shroud. (White, after all, is for untouched brides, whom a weddingís witnesses are forbidden to rival.) These cover-ups, very Victorian, are the only ugly garments in the film. Restitution will be made for this incursion by Garboís final costume, a pure white nightdress designer-cut for a saint. Standing to greet the lover returned to her at the last moment, the expiring heroine tucks a single white camellia into its waistband. In the black and white film the petals edging the blossom suggest the black borders on the creamy letter paper the Victorians used for death announcements and ensuing condolences.
Meanwhile, at the end of the scene in which, breaking her heart, Marguerite sends Armand away by telling him she prefers the man who formerly kept her, she wraps an enormous length of white fabric around her, turning her body into a narrow fluted column, a premonition of an effigy on a tombstone.
Now comes the passage I had been anticipating so eagerly. Having renounced her liaison with Armand, Marguerite has returned to the lover who previously supported her hectic life in the demimonde. She appears with her protector at a raucous soiree, where Armand, returned, encounters her just as she is being insulted by her escort. All cool subtlety, Armand reprimands his unworthy rival, then triumphs over him at the gaming table, making a killing at his expense. Then, in bitterness and barely contained rage, he hurls the money he has won at Marguerite, so that the huge, crumpled bills spill down the length of her dress.
I assumed that, in this scene, Garbo would be wearing the gown Iíd fallen in love with at FIT. But no. Sheís dressed in a gaudily elaborated version of itóthe paillettes scintillating everywhere, the decoration on the bodice amped up, the black tulle that had been confined to the sleeves not merely augmented and fluffed out there but also extended over the entire garment, closely wrapping the gown and, by implication, the body, like the netting used to surround an offering of luxurious chocolates. Undeniably, this version of the costume is metaphorically correct. On the surface, Marguerite has been reduced to the status of luxury goods, available to anyone who can afford her. But the costume used in the film neglects the pathos of her situation, while the gown on display at FIT, grasping it so truly, is not merely beautiful but deeply touching as well. Of course, even to consider my claim, you have to believe that a dressónothing more than a few yards of cunningly cut black velvet, a little jet tulle, and a shower of sparklesócan have emotionally persuasive power. The proposition canít be argued. It has to be succumbed to.
Photo: Irving Solero: Adrian: Movie costume for Greta Garbo in Camille: Black velvet and tulle with beads and embroidery; The Museum at FIT; Gift of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
© 2005 Tobi Tobias
FIFTY YEARS OF HEAVEN AND HELL
Paul Taylor Dance Company / City Center, NYC / March 1-20, 2005
Celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tour to the full 50 United States, the Paul Taylor Dance Company is playing three weeks in New York City, its hometown. The repertoire encompasses a host of golden (and silver) oldies and a pair of new works. Newish, anyway; both had their premieres out of town.
Klezmerbluegrass honors an even more venerable anniversary than Taylor can lay claim to. The piece was commissioned by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture to celebrate 350 years of Jewish life in America. (The celebrants have in common the fact that it hasnít been easy going.) Itís typical of the bemused perversity that characterizes Taylorís mindset that the choreographer, while executing his commission, should combine the folk music of itinerant bands in eastern Europe with another folk genre: American bluegrass. What these two share, of course, is a vigorous dance impulse. Margot Leverett, who arranged the music and plays it (on clarinet) with the Klezmer Mountain Boys, has, indeed, arranged a reasonably convincing marriage of the genres. Taylor, maverick miracle worker that he is, combines them even more seamlessly in dance. If the resulting piece never digs deep into the human condition, as the best of Taylor does, it supplies a thoroughly enjoyable surface exuberance.
Klezmerbluegrass opens with four couples doing square dancey stuff; the moment this registers, three more couples join in to give the lie to the restrictions of foursquare structure. This is an aspect of Taylorís genius: He never dwells on the obvious; he simply states it briefly to give the viewer a firm reference point and then movesóswims, skedaddles, slipsóon, creating variations on the theme so inventive he seems at time to depart from it entirely (though not quite).
The gleeful opening section gives way to a somber, melancholy dance for the workís seven men, which cleverly uses the motif of line or chain dancing both as a structural device and a decorative one. One at a time, a single man emerges for the briefest solo stint in front of the moving wall, then lets himself be absorbed back into the quietly throbbing matrix of the tight-knit community.
A raucous passage, follows, led by Richard Chen See. Evoking wildóperhaps ecstaticórelease, itís succeeded, a tad too obviously (at this stage of his career, Taylor occasionally operates on automatic pilot), by a sultry female quintet led by Silvia Nevjinsky. Taylor has Nevjinsky evoke all the stock images of the houri, and she does so so beautifully and with such unemphatic conviction, they are somehow renewed. Chain dancing appears here again, with a single gesture spilling, wave-like, down the line and, at one point, a witty reference to Balanchineís compulsive daisy chains. Eventually five men arrive to shadow the women, then partner them, as if to imply that the female display, which we took to be what women do (or discuss) in a private, intimate womenís world was, after all, only a device to attract the men with whom theyíre destined to mate.
Next, logically, comes the obligatory ďloveĒ duet of the piece, but itís more playful than romantic here, with the tiny Julie Tice becoming a plaything (albeit a feisty one) in the arms of the lanky Michael Trusnovec. At the end of their tÍte-ŗ-tÍte, the two are held aloft and paraded around, mounted on the shoulders of the ensemble like the bridal pair at a Hasidic wedding.
As the dance winds down, Taylor gives us the ďAh, but . . .Ē with which he typically qualifies any proposal of the worldís perfection. The neatly coupled 14 dancers of the piece are joined by the loner, the outsideróhere in the form of Annmaria Mazzini. Sheís given a long, sensuous solo of yearning, tailor-made, if the pun can be forgiven, for her expressive power. I suspectóthis is just on one viewing, mind youóthat, choreographically speaking, the solo doesnít amount to much, that its meanderings are charged with a sensuous melancholy Mazzini could project simply doing her daily exercises, but it grabbed my heart nonetheless. In the final moments of the dance, the ensemble returns, comforts Mazziniís character a little, and allows her to leave. The point is quietly made, but made nonetheless: an effective social matrix must cast off the occasional person who doesnít fit in. By definition, community has little space for the aberrant.
When Taylor turns out the pair of new pieces he assigns himself to create annually, he usually adheres to the practical formula of one upbeat, one gloomy. Dante Variations, set to music by GyŲrgy Ligeti, falls into the dark-night-of-the-soul category, with its pointed epigraph from the Inferno, its opening and closing frieze of recumbent writhing bodies, and its prevalent mood of torment and despair.
Early on, the fallen figures of the frieze struggle to their feet and move from a gray-blue gloom into a glowing peach-colored light that lets us witness, as if in the reflection from hellish flames, some particulars of their plight. Nevjinsky, however, remains in the ominous fog, futilely extending a pleading hand to a merciless fate; eventually sheís joined by three lurking men for couplings right out of Hieronymus Bosch. Elsewhere, a small crowd of figures reverting to their animal instincts surrounds Michelle Fleet (in happier circumstances, worthy of her surname), who sits on the floor as if rigid with fear, legs wide open. When the men in the group lift her high, displaying her as prey, she beats her thighs with her fists. Then this treacherous little community blindfolds her with a narrow length of white cloth, watches as she fumbles and staggers through a miasma of lost dimensions, and abandons her to grope her way out of our view, alone. The bandage-like strip of fabric appears elsewhere to thwart the body by ďhandcuffingĒ it at the wrists or kneesóor, in a mistaken deviation into slapstick, tripping it up.
Itís only to be expected that the obligatory central duet, given to Trusnovec and Lisa Viola, should examine the antithesis of love. The two take turns in the dusky light and the bright glow. Sheís frenetic; heís riddled with shame and incapacity. Eventually they get together for a series of horrific moves that, again predictably, provides solace to neither of them. Their final flight takes them to opposite corners of the stage.
Everything Taylor makes his dancers do in this piece, heís had them do beforeówith greater conviction and intensity. Looking uninspired and recycled, Dante Variations provides little illumination for its audience. But, while I donít think this venture amounts to much, it did make me realize how much of Taylorís work arguesóand argues convincinglyóthat we humans are a breed of cripples aspiring to sublimity. Who, after all, so in need? Who, after all, so deserving?
Photo: Lois Greenfield: Silvia Nevjinsky in Paul Taylorís Klezmerbluegrass
© 2005 Tobi Tobias